Jesus and Socrates
Robinson College, Cambridge
5th May 2019
This term we are exploring the relation of Jesus of Nazareth and some of the Philosophers, mostly those of the ancient world. It was Professor Stephen Hawking who modestly declared that philosophy is dead. It is probably safer to say that, if you do philosophy well, you end up dead.
Of course, there are multiple ways of defining philosophy, and rather than tugging at that thread – the idea behind the theme this term, is simply that philosophy is part of the Jewish and Christian quest for holiness. The Shema – which was endorsed by Jesus – is a Jewish summary statement which encapsulates much of Hebrew scripture. It’s use on the lips of Jesus, might by now, be familiar to you. Hear O Israel, the Lord your God is one God – you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your strength and all your mind.’
From this perspective, Philosophy is the pursuit of loving God with the mind. It is the intellectual dimension of the ethical quest for holiness. And it means, thinking. Which, if you read the right body of modern literature, is precisely what religious people refuse to do. After all, surely – if you have given your life to Jesus, you don’t need to think any more – you just have to listen to him. Thinking then becomes sinful, and philosophy looks almost idolatrous. You have handed Jesus control of your life… why waste your time in the godless pursuit of thinking? And if you think I’m exaggerating – here is the chorus of a Southern Baptist hymn the choir has yet to learn. It’s entitled, ‘Jesus, take the wheel’.
‘Jesus, take the wheel. Take it from my hands. Cause I can’t do this on my own. I’m letting go. So give me one more chance. And save me from this road I’m on. Jesus, take the wheel.’
I can’t help thinking that it works well as a worship song, because if you put it into practice – then it will lead you very quickly into his presence. Refusing to think for yourself might indeed look like a short cut to a premature death. But if you do philosophy properly, it still takes you to a premature death – but at least you die in style.
It was the 16th Century French philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, who famously declared that ‘To philosophize is to learn how to die.’ He was borrowing, as it happens, from the Roman philosopher, Cicero, who – in the first century before Christ – said that ‘to philosophize is no other thing than for a man to prepare himself to death.’ I didn’t realise until reading through Plato’s works a couple of years ago, that both thinkers were actually borrowing from Plato himself. Plato wrote his philosophy in the form of dialogues where he mischievously pens out a literary reincarnation of his former teacher, Socrates. And it is on the lips of this Socrates, that he declares ‘In truth, those who practice philosophy correctly, practice dying.’
This was no throw-away line, but for Socrates (as we know him) it was a key feature of his philosophy. In debate with other thinkers, he proved himself readily capable of abandoning a long-cherished position if it turned out to be false. It sounds simple, and it sounds as though this is the kind of thing any rational person would do. But to abandon a political, religious or ideological belief, requires a little taste of death. The prevailing consensus has no room for this little taste of death. It is widely assumed today that for our false views can be modified, corrected in conversation with others or when we read a media report or hear a broadcast. Our entire democracy assumes, after all, that we are free-minded people, who make rational decisions based upon informed opinions. As Brexit has shown, in the well-oiled machine of British democracy, all our decisions are rational and all our opinions are informed… or perhaps we should start singing, ‘Jesus take the wheel’.
Changing your mind about anything important to you, is not simply a matter of receiving correct information. What if you woke up one morning and discovered that alcohol can send you to an early grave? Or that chocolate can make you fat? Or that bacon sandwiches and sunbathing can cause cancer? In order for us to abstain from these things, all we need is the correct information…. In order for us to change our mind about Brexit, all we need is correct information?
Much of the activity we call ‘thinking’ is simply an attempt to offer rational justification for decisions we have already made on non-rational grounds. Philosophy is something different. It suggests a love of wisdom, absent from the way our self-justifying thought-processes often work. To engage in philosophy might well mean to undergo something of a shift in the way we think, and believe, and act. And undergoing that shift is what the Scripture means by repentance. And undergoing that shift, is what philosophers mean when they talk about learning how to die.
Socrates, as it turns out, proved himself to be excellent at dying. Having upset the political and religious establishment of Athens by corrupting their youth and refusing to honour Athenian gods and institutions, he was condemned to death by drinking hemlock. There are various accounts of his last hours – but he was literally stoical: dignified and courageous as he met his end. He delivered a fine speech in which he calmly reflected upon death as a release, until the poison did its work.
The death of Jesus was nothing like this. Jesus did not approach his death calmly- but apparently sweating drops of blood, suggesting extreme levels of anxiety and stress. He knew what he was coming, was beaten beyond recognition, lashed within an inch of his life, mocked, stripped, and hung up naked for all the world to laugh at. There was nothing calm and stoical about the death of Jesus. There was desperation. No eloquent speech – just stuttered, brief declarations. There was no dignity at the cross.
To philosophise is to learn how to die. And Jesus did not die well
This, of course, is Easter term. Easter being the season when the Christian Church celebrates the resurrection. Where it proclaims victory over death. But the whole point of this is that there is no escape from death. No alternative route to death. No lazy or cowardly shortcuts – no assuming that Jesus died so you don’t have to. No – this is the Jesus who says you cannot be his disciple unless you take up your cross every day. Unless you face humiliation and death, on a daily basis.
Like the Socrates of literature, the Jesus of the Gospels faces death full on. Like Socrates, this Jesus amassed a following that caused serious concern for the religious and political rulers of the day. Like Socrates, Jesus might well have been called a gadfly, - someone who poses novel, distressing questions at those with power. Whilst steam-rolling your way through the status quo is not an end in itself – it is sometimes where philosophy leads you (which might, after all, add legitimacy to that request – Jesus, take the wheel. Especially if you’re driving a tank!)
Unlike Socrates, Jesus’ death was humiliating, not dignified. Unlike Socrates Jesus did not consider death a friend but an enemy. Unlike Socrates, Jesus did not consider death a sweet release as his soul floated free of his body. Far from it, the Jewish belief system was gritty, earthy, bodily. And the resurrection, is precisely the vindication of Jesus’s gritty, earthy, bodily claims. He did not leave his followers with a doctrine, or a lecture, or ethereal beliefs – but with a meal.
Christian philosophy is different from Socratic, because of what happens after death. Precisely what that is remains unclear. But where Socratic philosophy embraces death, Christian philosophy confronts death, and relativizes it. After death, there is a meal.
Loving God, we thank you for loving us with every ounce of your being, and pray that we might learn to love you with every ounce of ours.
We thank you for our minds, for the ability to think, to research, to explore, to discover. We thank you for the way that so many of our academic institutions exist because of the desire to love you with our minds. We thank you for these institutions, for the colleges of this and other universities, and pray that they might continue to serve our world as places of education, learning, research and religion.
We pray that where minds have narrowed or closed, through over exposure to digital echo chambers, social media and fake news – you would lead us into all truth.
We pray that where minds have been damaged by austerity or poverty, by living for the next meal, by struggling to put the meal on the table, or by giving in to the laziness born of despair, we pray for justice as a basis for truth.
We pray that where minds have been submerged beneath sorrow, grief, or anxiety – where there appears to be no such thing as tomorrow, and where yesterday engulfs all – we pray for liberation and healing, that minds may be exposed to living truth.
We pray that where minds have been narrowed by certainty, where opinions have been blinkered by privilege or pride, that you reveal yourself as the God who speaks.
Speak through us we pray – teach us how to listen that we might one day have something to say. And teach us how to think with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength, all our life – and by your grace may we grow in loving your with every ounce of our being.